The BBC’s A Suitable Boy: sexless and boring

When this script isn’t embarrassingly explicatory, it’s purest slush.

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What on earth is up with Andrew Davies, the nation’s literary screenwriter of choice? Two (very long) hours into his adaptation of Vikram Seth’s mammoth 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy, and I finally realised what was missing: animal passion. Only one paltry sex scene so far, and an encounter that was incredibly tame by his standards (in a tastefully lit bedroom, a youthful bum wriggled enthusiastically beneath a sheet). Things may, with four episodes still to go, yet pick up (or perhaps I mean perk up). Then again, maybe wrangling Seth’s 591,552-word epic left him too worn out to insert a nice bit of anachronistic lust.

What surprises me is how much I suddenly long for such frolics; after all, the woodland action in last year’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, left me cold. I guess I’m just desperate. A Suitable Boy looks marvellous (“sumptuous” is a word you may read elsewhere), and it’s beautifully acted; Tanya Maniktala, the saucer-eyed newcomer who plays stubborn university student, Lata Mehra, is utterly adorable. But boy, is it boring: a tedium born, I think, of its absolute sincerity. It’s as if Davies hadn’t so much read the novel as inhaled it, after which such was his state of intoxication, he was unable to get in touch with his famous waspishness, wit and pace. When his script isn’t embarrassingly explicatory – “That maths text book, it’s pretty advanced stuff,” purrs someone in a library – it’s purest slush. “What is it that you want from me?” asks the courtesan, Saeeda Bai (Tabu) of her eager, young lover Maan Kapoor (Ishaan Khatter). “Everything,” he replies, his eyes like candles.

A Suitable Boy (26 July, 9pm) opens in 1951, in northern India, four years after Partition. But while there are certainly heavy nods in the direction of political and religious turmoil – in the fictional town of Brahmpur, soldiers fire on a group of Muslims protesting at the building of a temple next to their mosque – Davies’s focus is mostly on love, and all the ways in which it is permitted and forbidden at this moment, in this particular culture. Independent-minded Lata Mehra has fallen for a fellow student, Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi), who is Muslim – when this is discovered by her Hindu mother, it results in her removal to Calcutta, where it’s hoped that under the eye of her brother she’ll meet more suitable men. Meanwhile, Maan Kapoor, the feckless son of a local Congress Party politician, will shortly be exiled “to learn Urdu”, a euphemism for avoiding gossip – and something that enables his lover, Saeeda Bai, to go on making her living cavorting with an obese Rajah (she gives Maan her favours for free, which can’t keep her in kohl very long).

What’s strange about both these affairs is how little sense of jeopardy they seem to involve. I was sorry for both our young lovers, but only momentarily: these people fall in love faster than you can say monsoon, earnest declarations falling from their mouths like petals from a flower; and they recover from any supposed broken-heartedness just as quickly. Their delusions, spoony and weightless, push us into sympathising just a little more than we ought with the sharp pragmatism of their interfering parents; with Durrani’s blithe conviction that finishing his degree is a better option than elopement; with Saeeda Bai’s Machiavellian insistence that Kapoor must improve his language skills if he hopes to keep her.

No wonder, then, that my favourite character at this point is Meenakshi Chatterji Mehra (Shahana Goswami), Lata’s naughty, shallow sister-in-law, who is merrily cheating on her boring, snobbish husband; who has melted down her late father-in-law’s medals and turned them into earrings; who (worst of all!) passes off curries made by her parents’ cook as all her own work to impress stodgy, visiting British dignitaries (“it’s an old, family recipe”). At least in her case the chilliness without matches that within. She doesn’t emote. She doesn’t wang on all day long about poetry. Not for her the ersatz Sturm und Drang of her relatives. The only lyricism that interests Meenakshi is to be found in the fabulous name of her latest nail polish. 

A Suitable Boy 
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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